Organic food is grown free of chemical pesticides, fertilisers, antibiotics and hormones so, naturally, you would think it’s better for you.
But is it really?
Hundreds of studies have been conducted on the benefits of organic food, but little evidence has been found for any nutritional or other health benefits.
On the other hand, organic food does have lower levels of chemicals from pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. Recent research has also found higher levels of Omega-3s and antioxidants in some organic foods.
Health benefits aside, there is evidence that organic farming generally has environmental benefits compared to conventional farming methods. This is a complex and contentious topic, but it seems that organic farming actually could be better for the environment which may be a good reason to eat more organic food if you can afford it.
The organic eating movement shows no signs of slowing down - consumers around the world spend more than $70B on organic food each year.
Lovers of organic food claim that the quality and taste of the food is worth the extra expense. But if they are buying it for health reasons are they actually doing their health a favour or are they spending more on a product that doesn’t have measurable benefits?
What Makes Food Organic?
The definition of “organic” varies depending on the country. In most places, to be classified as organic, food must be grown without synthetic pesticides, processed fertilisers and raw sewage. Genetically modified organisms and GM products are also prohibited. Typically, animals being raised for organic meat cannot be fed hormones, antibiotics or veterinary drugs.
Is Organic Food Healthier?
It’s easy to make the assumption that organic food must be better for you but does that claim hold up when we look at the evidence? We did the research to find studies that examined the nutritional value of organic food vs conventional food.
Stanford Medicine did an analysis of 237 relevant studies which compared organic and conventional foods. The Stanford study reported on the nutrient levels, bacterial, fungal and pesticide contamination of fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, poultry, milk and eggs which were grown organically and conventionally.
The study found there no substantial evidence that organic foods were either more nutritious or had fewer health risks compared to non-organic foods.
One nutrient, phosphorous, was found in significantly higher quantities in organic foods. The benefit of this was discounted because very few people have a phosphorous deficiency.
How About Organic Milk?
Research shows that organic, grass-fed milk does have higher levels of omega 3 fatty acid than conventional milk. Pasture-fed cows eat more clover which has high amounts of omega 3 which passes into their milk.
Omega 3 can protect you from developing heart disease, depression, stroke and cancer. However, the amount of omega 3 in organic milk is in question.
The Washington Post reports the increased level of omega 3 is negligible. They claim you’d need to drink nearly 11 litres of milk to receive the same amount of omega 3 as from a 120 gram piece of salmon.
The Organic Facts website, however, reports there is 71% more omega 3 in organic milk than conventional milk.
Antioxidants in Organic Fruit and Vegetables
A 2014 study found that organic crops produce food with higher concentrations of a range of antioxidants than non-organic crops.
Polyphenolics antioxidants are thought to reduce the risk of some chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers.
Does Organic Meat Have Any Health Benefits?
Not a lot of research has been done on the nutritional value of organic versus conventional meat. There is little evidence to indicate that there are any significant health benefits of eating organic meat. Grass-fed beef has slightly higher levels of omega 3 compared to conventional meat, but as with milk the increased levels are thought to be so minor, they don’t have any benefit to human health.
Are Organic Eggs Any Healthier?
Research has found that free range chickens lay eggs that are higher in omega-3s than grain-fed chickens. The organic eggs also contained slightly more protein. Organic eggs may also have slightly lower levels of cholesterol and saturated fat.
Health Risks of Conventional Vs Organic Food
So, the evidence is not strong for organic food being better for your health. But, if organic food has less pesticides and chemical residue from fertilisers, does that make the higher cost worth it?
The use of hormones and antibiotics in farming also concerns many people and they see that as another potential benefit of organic food.
Organic Milk vs Conventional Milk
Whether milk is organic or conventional, every truckload in the US is tested for veterinary drugs including antibiotics. If any are detected that truckload isn’t used for human consumption. In 2012 only one in every 6,000 trucks tested positive. The US Department for Agriculture also tests for pesticide levels in milk and found them to be very low.
Some conventionally-raised dairy cows are injected with a growth hormone to improve milk production. The hormone doesn’t survive the pasteurisation and if it did the human digestion process would destroy it.
Milk from cows, sheep and goats must be pasteurised to kill dangerous bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli, listeria, and campylobacter that cause foodborne illness.
Unpasteurised milk became popular a few years ago, but it remains illegal in Australia to sell raw milk for human consumption that hasn’t been pasteurised. Some states in the US allow raw milk to be sold, but the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t allow raw milk to be distributed or sold interstate. The milk must be pasteurised first to kill any microorganisms.
Fruit and Vegetables
Many consumers assume that all organic foods are 100% free of pesticides. However, a study found 23% of organic food had residue from at least one pesticide in the sample while the same study showed 73% of conventional food had residue from at least one pesticide.
The Stanford study also looked at the pesticide exposure of a range of fruits and vegetables. Researchers found fruits and vegetables labelled organic had a 30% lower risk of pesticide contamination compared to non-organic.
Two studies found that children consuming an organic diet had less pesticide residue in their urine compared to children eating a conventional diet however it is not known what effect if any, pesticide residue has on humans. The Environmental Protection Agency has found the lifetime health effects of low level exposure to pesticide residue is far below minimum health concerns.
There are claims that exposure to organophosphate insecticide may be linked to neurological problems such as ADHD and lower IQ in children. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says the link between neurological problems and organophosphates had been seen in farming communities where there were high levels of exposure but not in the general population from food consumption.
The British Journal of Nutrition reported in 2014 that non-organic food grown in soil contained higher concentrations of toxic metals including cadmium.
One of the most significant risks for fresh produce is pathogens. The Stanford study found E. Coli contamination is slightly higher in organic than conventional food. Leafy vegetables like spinach and lettuce are the riskiest for causing food poisoning. The best defence against pathogens is to cook fresh produce, where possible.
One of the biggest risks when eating meat is ingesting pathogens that can cause food poisoning. Bacterial contamination levels of organic versus conventional meats were found to be higher in organic meats by the Stanford study. Campylobacter bacteria was higher in organic chicken while organic pork had E. coli bacteria in greater numbers. The higher level of contamination could be due to antibiotics not being used.
Adequate cooking of all meats kills most bacteria harmful to humans, so properly-cooked organic meat is probably not significantly riskier than conventional meat.
Antibiotics are also used on some conventionally-farmed animals to keep livestock healthy and to treat sick animals.
Consumers are now more aware of the use of hormones and antibiotics in animal husbandry. Some producers and retailers promote their organic and conventional meat as being hormone-free.
Food safety with eggs is just as important as it is with meat as harmful bacteria can cause serious food poisoning. Whether organic, free range or caged, eggs should be clean with no droppings or dirt on the shell as bacteria can enter the egg through tiny cracks.
Organic Food Advantages & Disadvantages
In summary, there are advantages and disadvantages to eating an organic diet. It all comes down to what’s important to you as the consumer and your budget.
Advantages of Organic Food
Some advantages of organic food are:
Reduction in Pesticide Exposure
Most experts agree that eating organic foods means less exposure to pesticides. What is in dispute is how harmful those pesticides are. Most believe there is minimal risk involved with low-level exposure to pesticides.
Higher Levels of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Studies have shown that grass-fed animals produce more omega-3 fatty acids in their milk and meat. The quantity of omega-3 will vary depending on the animal’s diet.
Environmental Benefits of Organic Farming Practices
Many people choose to buy organic food for environmental reasons. Environmental damage can be caused by synthetic fertilisers and pesticides leaching and running off conventional farms.
The use of pesticides in conventional farming has been blamed for causing some species of insects, butterflies and birds to become threatened or extinct.
Disadvantages of Organic Food
The disadvantages of organic food include:
The biggest downside to eating an organic food diet is the cost. Organic food often costs 20 - 70% more. In some countries, the organic food industry is mature with better economies of scale, so the organic premium is not as high.
The organic food premium is due mainly to the additional costs of farming including:
Lower yields from organic farming
More labour intensive farming methods
Protection of the environment
More space required
Pathogens in Organic Meat
Organic meat can have the same (if not more) dangerous pathogens than conventionally farmed meat. Correct handling and cooking are needed to destroy bacteria.
Organic Food is Not Entirely Pesticide-Free
Some organic crops are less resistant to pests so pesticides are needed for their survival. The only difference is the pesticides for organic farms come from natural sources while conventional crops may use processed pesticides. Sometimes they can be the same substance. A 2012 Scientific American article said organic pesticides posed the same health risks as non-organic ones and were probably not a justified reason to buy organic.
So, Should You Bother Eating Organically?
The perception that organic food delivers more health benefits than conventional food sells billions of dollars’ worth of food every year. However, the nutritional benefits of organic food are minimal, and you aren’t guaranteeing that your food is free from harmful chemicals.
The only benefit of organic food that most experts agree on is its production is better for the environment than conventional farming. Spending more at the checkout may not deliver health benefits for you, but you will be doing your part in protecting the health of the planet. This is not insignificant, so if you can afford it and want to help the environment, by all means buy organic.